Former Secret Service agent Gerald Blaine (Bus’59) breaks his silence to share memories of his job protecting Kennedy.
When it came to protecting President John F. Kennedy from threats, the tools at hand were decidedly low-tech. Sure, there were weapons like the famous Thompson submachine gun, known as the “Tommy gun.” But the next crucial items on the list, according to Gerald Blaine (Bus’59), who served from 1959 to 1964 in the U.S. Secret Service, weren’t so impressive — sunglasses and 3×5 index cards.
“We had no armored cars, no special weapons, no radios, no computers,” says Blaine, 78, who lives in Grand Junction, Colo. “We just had index cards with the name, description and photo of possible threats to the president. The reason we had sunglasses was that when we were in crowds or in a motorcade, [if we saw a possible threat], we could keep an eye on the person without him knowing we were watching.”
But the book is much more ambitious than that. After nearly a half-century of self-imposed silence — with a few exceptions whom Blaine bitterly disdains — the men charged with protecting Kennedy’s life open up about their experiences, their emotions and the lasting legacy of the president who was shot in Dallas at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963.
The book, he says, has provided a catharsis for many of the surviving agents.
“We never talked about how we suffered,” Blaine says. “We didn’t talk about it with each other. We didn’t have trauma counselors so we swallowed our emotions.”
Death of a president
Blaine was in Austin, Texas, doing advance security for the president’s next stop after Dallas when the assassination occurred. He was ordered to take a military flight back to Washington, D.C., and didn’t even know the president was dead until he landed. By that time, he’d been assigned to cover the new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
“It just kind of knocked the wind out of you,” he says, remembering his shock upon receiving the news of the assassination. “I was pretty close to [Kennedy] after three years. It was like losing a friend.”
As much as anything Blaine intends the book, co-authored by Colorado-based journalist Lisa McCubbin, to be a counterweight to what he calls “ridiculous” conspiracy theories that have dogged the Kennedy assassination almost from the moment he was shot.
“I went to see Oliver Stone’s JFK [in 1991] and it was an abomination,” Blaine says. After searching the internet, “I found that [assassination] conspiracy theories were a cottage industry, full of all these ridiculous themes about how the assassination occurred. I decided it was time to tell the truth.”
Blaine’s path to protecting Kennedy began after he graduated from Englewood High School south of Denver in 1950 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After a hitch in Korea, he returned to study at CU, focusing on business and criminology. The Denver field office of the Secret Service hired him straight out of CU, and just four months later he was transferred to the White House detail.
“I give CU a lot of credit,” Blaine says. “The university had a sound education system going and it really helped me just coming back from the war.”
He left the Secret Service in 1964 and worked in corporate security for IBM and ARCO International Oil and Gas in Dallas before retiring in 2003. At ARCO he directed security operations in more than 40 countries throughout the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia and Central and South America with responsibilities that included personal, physical and intellectual security, investigations and establishing liaisons with foreign governments.
For the book Blaine interviewed fellow agents who were on duty that fateful day in Dallas when the president was shot in the head before dying 30 minutes later at Parkland Hospital.
In both the book and in conversation, Blaine bluntly dismisses any and all conspiracy theories. He unreservedly endorses the findings of the Warren Commission, which investigated Kennedy’s death. He says “it was committed by a lone sociopath” — Lee Harvey Oswald.
Not surprisingly, The Kennedy Detail (Gallery), which quickly hit The New York Times bestseller list after being published in November, has drawn out those who accuse Blaine himself of a “coverup.” Blaine calls such charges “ridiculous” and notes that conspiracies are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to keep veiled over time.
“It’s been 47 years [since Kennedy was killed] and there still is not one solid piece of evidence that it was a conspiracy,” he says.
For the love of country
Blaine says protecting the president today is a far different job. In 1963 there were 330 agents, with 34 on the president’s detail but “no more than five agents around the president at one time.” Today there are 3,700 and 30 to 40 agents on presidential advance teams alone. In 1963 the Secret Service budget was $4 million. Today it’s $1.6 billion. Agents in the ’60s made a whopping $1.80 an hour, with a $12 per diem to cover hotel and meal costs.
“We all did it because of our strong love of country,” Blaine says.
Some armchair critics have taken shots at The Kennedy Detail for its lack of lurid tales.
He does remember some of the rich and famous who were invited to be part of Kennedy’s famous “Camelot,” including members of the “Irish mafia,” Frank Sinatra, actress Kim Novak and other Hollywood personalities.
But neither the book nor Blaine has much to say about JFK’s well-known philandering. Nearly 50 years later Blaine still keeps the code of Secret Service agents.
“We have to be worthy of [the First Family’s] trust and confidence. We live their lives,” he says carefully. “As far as the affairs, I guarantee that no agent ever saw [Kennedy] in the act of doing that. But like anyone you could probably surmise or draw certain conclusions.”
The book doesn’t mention Judith Exner, Kennedy’s alleged mistress, and Blaine says he saw the president with actress Marilyn Monroe just twice. The first time was at actor Peter Lawford’s Santa Monica, Calif., home when Kennedy stripped down for a quick, bracing dip in the Pacific Ocean. The second was on May 19, 1962, at a Democratic fundraiser in New York’s Madison Square Garden when Monroe sang her famous breathy version of “Happy Birthday” to Kennedy.
Monroe left before the other guests, Blaine remembers and says, “There really wasn’t anything between Marilyn and him.”
Blaine says first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, not the president, was behind the famous socializing and A-list affairs. But because she was quite private, he didn’t see much of her, except during a trip to India.
A failed mission
Blaine deeply admires Kennedy to this day. He uses words like brilliant and outstanding and says the president today would be considered a “conservative.” He remembers how calm and focused he was during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the world came to the brink of nuclear war.
“During the Cuban missile crisis I was in the office with the president when he spoke to the nation,” he says gravely. “We were very close to going to war. And that’s where I really saw the strength of President Kennedy.”
Blaine recalls riding the elevator with the president following the speech.
“He just said, ‘We’re in a bit of a pickle,’ then asked about my family.”
While admiring Kennedy’s personal magnetism, the former agent still exudes frustration over the president’s seeming need to plunge into crowds and ride in an open-top limo.
“When President Eisenhower went out, he never rode in an open car . . . He would not shake hands with crowds,” Blaine says.
Agents felt they had “95 percent confidence” they could protect Ike, he says. That number dropped to 70 percent for the gregarious Kennedy. But in his own harsh historical judgment, there is another, more painful number he’ll never forget.
“We failed [Kennedy] 100 percent,” Blaine says quietly. “There aren’t many jobs where you can fail 100 percent. We’ve all had a lot of guilt over that.”